Jan. 31 (Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Governor Chris Christie knew about lane closures at the George Washington Bridge as they occurred in September, according to David Wildstein, a former ally at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Wildstein’s claim came today in a letter by his lawyer, Alan Zegas, to the Port Authority, contradicting Christie’s assertions Jan. 9 that he had no knowledge of closures that snarled traffic for four days near the bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey. At the same time, a former Christie campaign aide said he’ll refuse to answer questions under the Fifth Amendment.
While saying “evidence exists” of Christie’s knowledge, Zegas didn’t cite any in the letter, which demands that the Port Authority pay Wildstein’s legal fees amid investigations by the state legislature and federal prosecutors of the closures. Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, has suggested the closures were intended to punish him for not supporting the re-election last November of Christie, a Republican.
“A person within the Christie administration communicated the Christie administration’s order that certain lanes on the George Washington Bridge were to be closed,” Zegas wrote. “Evidence exists as well tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed.”
The Christie administration, in an e-mail, repeated the governor’s assertion that he first learned of the closures when they were reported by the media.
“Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer confirms what the governor has said all along: He had absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they happened, and whatever Mr. Wildstein’s motivations were for closing them to begin with.”
It added: “The governor denies Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer’s other claims.”
The closings, from Sept. 9 to Sept. 12, stretched typical delays of 30 minutes to four hours or more and trapped emergency-response vehicles and schoolbuses. On what was to be the fifth day of tie-ups, Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, who was appointed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, ordered all lanes reopened.
Today’s claim by Wildstein “establishes a reasonable suspicion that the governor may have committed an impeachable offense,” said Senator Raymond Lesniak, a Democrat from Elizabeth who sits on the Judiciary Committee.
In testimony in November before the New Jersey Assembly Transportation Committee, Bill Baroni, Christie’s appointee as the authority’s deputy executive director, said the closures were for a traffic study. Baroni and Wildstein resigned in December. A comprehensive traffic study has yet to be produced.
The bridge plot apparently began in August when Christie’s then-deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, e-mailed to Wildstein: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein, who ordered the lane closures, replied: “Got it.”
Mark Sheridan, an attorney representing Christie’s campaign and the New Jersey Republican State Committee, declined to comment when reached by phone. Each organization was issued a grand jury subpoena Jan. 17 by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, seeking documents related to the bridge closures.
Feb. 3 is the due date for documents subpoenaed by New Jersey lawmakers who also are investigating the matter. Twenty people or organizations with links to Christie were ordered to turn over e-mails, mobile-phone text messages, letters and any other correspondence related to the bridge closures.
Kevin Marino, a lawyer for Christie’s former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, notified the legislative committee today that his client won’t comply with the subpoena and will invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
“His act of producing documents and things responsive to the subpoena might compel him to furnish a link in the chain of evidence that could be used to ensnare him in the ambiguous circumstances of a criminal prosecution -- and thus force him to become a witness against himself,” Marino said.
Christie, a possible 2016 presidential contender, is chairman of the Republican Governors Association and is a major fundraiser for colleagues’ races in November.
His approval since the bridge allegations slid to its lowest since May 2011, according to a poll released Jan. 28 by Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey. Forty-eight percent of state voters said they approved of his job performance, wiping out the bounce he received in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The rating stood at 62 percent in October poll by the institute.
Christie hasn’t faced reporters since the Jan. 9 news conference in which he denied knowledge of the closures and has made two appearances this week on sports radio programs to discuss the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford.
“Chris Christie doesn’t want to talk about anything but the game, but it looks like he’s going to need to change his plans,” Mo Elleithee, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement.
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